The End of the World in Five Dates

by on Mar 4, 2014 in Short Fiction | 2 comments

3800 Words

I: May 21, 2011 (according to Harold Camping)

Robin called it an apartment, but it was really part of an old carpet factory in the Junction: an echoing space where one of the looms used to be, furnished with a broken church pew, two wheelchairs, and the bench seat from a minivan.

The smells of paint and dust were good, banishing the phantom smells of antiseptic and latex gloves from my nose. I leaned in the doorway of the breakroom and watched her sweep. “Where’s everyone going to sit?”

“On the floor,” she said. “That’s why I’m sweeping it.”

“And you’re cooking dinner on this thing?” I gestured over my shoulder at the twelve–burner gas range; eleven of the burners were clotted with molasses–brown grease and a surcoat of dog hair.

“Petra’s bringing food. You’ll like Petra.”

“No, I won’t.”

Robin threw the broom down with a clatter, and marched over to the dentist’s cabinet in the corner. “Jesus,” she said. “You need an attitude adjustment, stat.”

She handed me a bottle of Crown Royal, about a third full. I poured some into one of the paint–stained mugs from the work table. The paint didn’t come off into the whiskey, so I drank it.

“Now,” Robin said, picking up the broom again, and sweeping the pile of dust and filings underneath the work table. “You are going to love Petra. Know why? Because she’s extremely fucked up.”

“Oh. Great.”

“Shut up and drink! She’s fucked up and she’s my oldest friend, and you can’t mess around with her. Be good to her. Got it? Even if you can’t be good to yourself.”

“It’s not about being good to myself, for fuck’s sake. If this is confirmed, it means surgery and chemo and all kinds of unpleasant bullshit and there’s just no point to it.”

“But you don’t know for sure! What if you’re wrong? If it really is cancer, Cass, you can’t just leave it alone —”

“Watch me.”

“Cass,” Robin said. “I’m sorry. Let’s talk later, when you’ve had a bit more time to get used to it.”

“Right. Sure.” As if.

“Are you sure you’re okay to stay for dinner? Promise you’ll tell me if you need anything?”

I raised the mug to her, and made a face. My knee hurt, the way it had for ages, but it didn’t hurt enough to warrant anything stronger than drink. It only felt different because I knew what it might be, now.

The bell rang: a great big clanging handbell Robin had mounted outside the factory door. I slugged some more of my whiskey, brushed off Robin’s hand and went to answer.

Petra, first sight: collarbones standing out from a boat–neck sweater, hair cropped in a pixie cut that made her eyes look huge. She had three giant takeout bags from the Tikka House, and a box of red wine.

“Happy Rapture,” she said, and kissed my cheek, although we had never met before.

“I’m Cassandra,” I said to the side of her face as she slipped past me to hug Robin.

Two other women crowded in behind; Robin’s cousin Kate and her ex Laurie. We all lounged around on the bare concrete floor and ate samosas and dipped naan in tarka daal. Everyone handed Petra their cups to be filled with wine from the box.

“To endings,” I said, raising my mug.

Robin frowned at me. I ignored her.

Petra giggled, lifted her plastic tumbler of wine, and tilted it against mine.

Dinner was messy. I got tamarind sauce on my cuff, whiskey on my arm and wine all over the floor beside me. I watched Petra’s lips: the gloss was all licked off and replaced with the shine of ghee and a few crumbs of chickpea flour. She smiled a lot, but in between smiles she looked sad.

When she laughed, her eyes and nose wrinkled up and her upper lip lifted off her teeth, and then she would follow it up with a self–conscious press of hand to mouth. The third time she did it, I touched her wrist and drew her hand back down and set a pakora in it, which made her laugh again.

When everyone was stuffed we piled all the takeout dishes under the table and Robin put Patti Smith on the stereo. I went out for a cigarette. When I came back in, Petra was just exiting the bathroom. She paused in the doorway and gave me a wide–open look. I crowded her back in and pushed her against the inside of the door and said, “I’ve been wanting to kiss you all night.”

That laugh again, and then she tilted her head back, and so I pressed my lips to hers.

“Is this an end–of–the–world thing?” she said. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“I’ve seen the end,” I said. “This isn’t it.”

A bright purple–white light. Newspaper sheets scattered on the floor, dated 2013. Thunderous noise. Pain in my knee eclipsed, meaningless.

Petra pouted. “Does that mean I’ll have to worry about whether you’ll call me in the morning?”

I paused, hand inside her sweater, other hand at her waist. “Assume I won’t.”

She thought about it for a second, and shrugged. “Still in.”

I laughed against the fine skin of her belly, and I kept her there until I heard Kate or Laurie, outside, counting down to midnight. (“It’s not New Year’s —” “Come on, bubbly is always appropriate —”)

We stumbled out. Laurie was pouring prosecco into all of the remaining paint mugs. I kept hold of Petra’s hand. From the other side of the work table, Robin glared at me, and turned up the volume on “Dancing Barefoot”.

She came around and took Petra’s hand and uncoupled it from my own. “If you’re going to hang out with Cass,” she said, “there’s some stuff I should tell you.”

“No, Robin, shut up,” I said. “It’s not your business, shut up.”

But she led Petra away, and Petra followed, and I stood there against the wall, watching Robin’s mouth form words, watching Petra’s face change as she listened.

 

II: October 21, 2011 (again according to Harold Camping)

“Cassandra, good to see you,” Petra said, clearly meaning the opposite. She was looking away from me already, at the passing cars on Harbord. We were taking advantage of one of the last warm evenings of the year on a bistro patio.

“Her name’s not really Cassandra,” Robin said. “Right, Chrissie?”

“Seriously?” said the other woman at the table, my date, Aminata. “Like Chrissie Hynde?”

“Exactly like Chrissie Hynde,” I said, “only without the ‘e’,” and I showed her my driver’s license.

She laughed, wide–open throat. “Why wouldn’t you keep a name like that?”

“Gonna make you, make you, make you notice,” Petra sang, in a nasty whine.

I tilted my chin at her. “That’s why.”

Aminata laughed some more, to get us over the awkward spot. I really liked Aminata. “Why Cassandra, though?” she said.

“The vision thing,” Robin said. “Didn’t she tell you? She sees the future.”

“Only a bit of it,” I said, to the placemat in front of me.

“The worst bit,” Petra said. “And it’s not even true. Prophecies never are.”

“Case in point,” Robin put in, “did you see the news? All the people setting up lawn chairs in Times Square? End times tourists. You’d think they would’ve learned their lesson back in May.”

“It’s like they’re hoping against hope,” Aminata said.

“Well, if they were right, it would mean going to heaven,” I said.

“But they aren’t right,” Petra said. “And now they have to face the facts. They gave up their homes and trashed their lives on this earth and now they’ve got to live in the aftermath.” She slammed her wine glass down on the table so hard the stem cracked and the bell dropped. Wine flooded across the table onto Aminata’s lap.

“Whoa,” Robin said, grabbing for a napkin.

“That’s a Coach,” Aminata said sadly, looking at the dull red stain across her suede bag. She beckoned a waitress, and asked for some club soda.

Petra covered her mouth with her hand and looked away.

I saw blood on her fingers. I pulled at her wrist and made her open her hand so I could press a napkin to the cut.

“I thought you were just mad at me, about the way we left things,” I said, low, only to her. “But there’s something else going on, isn’t there?”

Petra shook her head. “I’m just so sad. I’m so sad, Cass, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Hey,” I said. “Hey.” I stroked her hair, across the table.

“Your date’s leaving,” she said. I looked out and saw Aminata’s stained bag, slung over Aminata’s round shoulder, proceeding away along Harbord, in the last of the sunset.

“She would’ve anyway,” I said. “People mostly do, when they hear about the prophecy thing.”

“That’s not why,” Petra burst out. “Don’t you get it? I don’t give a shit about your prophecy thing! I just didn’t want to watch you let yourself die.” Her eyes overflowed. She hid her face in the bloodied napkin.

“Look, no one knows for sure that it’s cancer. It was just a recommendation for me to follow up. Anyway, there’s no way you’re this sad over me,” I said. “You haven’t even seen me in how long? Get checked for depression. Get some meds, or something.”

“You’re such an asshole,” Petra said. She dropped the napkin on the floor, grabbed her bag and walked out.

Robin and I sat there, empty chairs to either side, table wine–stained and scattered with shards.

“Don’t say it,” I said.

Robin shrugged, and didn’t say it.

 

III: May 27, 2012 (according to Ronald Weinland)

“It was what you said. You got me thinking.” Petra looked different. I glanced again and again as she spoke. I figured out she’d gained weight, all over, the frail angles replaced by sturdier curves. Her cheeks looked more cheerful, her belly rounded a little over her belt, and I was pretty sure she’d gone up a bra size.

“What I said,” I echoed, trying to remember what we’d been talking about, and when. We were in a Starbucks, in the rear corner; they had Jeff Buckley on the stereo, beneath the noise of the espresso machine.

“I cockblocked your date,” she said, “and you were kind of shitty about it.”

“Oh yeah. Aminata. ’S okay, it wasn’t going anywhere.” I heard the words, I heard my voice, normal and dry, but it seemed like someone else, speaking in another room.

“It never is, with you, right?” Petra said, and laughed, a little sadly. “So, yeah. I went and got checked for depression, and what do you know, I had it. So I got meds. Best thing I’ve done for myself in ages. I figured I’d look you up and say thanks.”

“Um. You’re welcome.”

“Did you just wake up, or something?”

I nodded, sucked at my coffee, heard the liquid whiffle through the opening of the plastic lid.

“Have you eaten? Want a scone to go with that?”

“I could go for a scone.” I couldn’t go for a scone. There was no way I could eat. My mouth still tasted of blood where I’d scored the inside of my cheek with my teeth.

Her phone call had raised me from another one of those dreams: torn pages of the Star scattered on the floor, dated next year; grinding pain in my knee, worse than now. The flash of light, devastating. The avalanche–roar that I thought was the whole city falling.

The day was getting closer. I still hadn’t figured out how to live in its shadow.

I watched her return to the lineup, point to the pastry case, fumble for her wallet. “Hey, Petra,” I said, when she came back to the table. “I’m going to Europe. Want to go with me?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Bucket list? I thought you’d already done Europe.”

I shrugged. “By myself. And there was a lot of stuff I didn’t see.”

“Yeah, well. It is an entire continent.”

I tore a piece off my scone and put it in my mouth. It tasted like ash.

“Every time I go a couple of months without seeing you, I forget what a jackass you can be,” Petra said.

She didn’t look mean while she said it, though. I figured I was growing on her.

“You still haven’t followed up with the doctor yet. Have you?”

I shook my head. My knee didn’t really feel any worse than it had since I first went to ask about it. It hurt, and I limped a bit, but I didn’t need a cane. I could definitely go on like this for another eight months.

“Bucket list,” I reminded her. “It doesn’t include spending the Last Days on medical bullshit.”

I was expecting her to roll her eyes. But she just looked at me, and sat back a little, her feather earrings swinging against her neck.

“Have you ever had any other visions?” she said.

So I told her about my parents. I’d been right about that one. I’d even told them. And it hadn’t made any difference at all.

At the end of the telling, my coffee had gone lukewarm, and the torn edge of the scone had gone dry.

Petra reached across the table. I thought she was going to touch my hand, but she swept up the uneaten scone and crumpled the paper bag around it and dumped it in the nearby garbage.

“That’s kind of freaky,” she said. “I mean, I’m really sorry for your loss, and I can see why you think the way you do. I’m not a believer. But… You told me to go get checked for depression. You were right about that.”

“No. You would’ve made the same decision anyway,” I said. “I don’t even know why you listened to me. You were right, I was being a jackass.”

“Look,” she said. “I don’t really want to, but I give a shit about you. I want you to stick around.”

“I gave notice on my apartment yesterday.”

“So stay with Robin. Stay with me. Whatever. Even if you’re right, don’t you want to spend your time with the people who give a shit about you?”

I pictured eight months of concerned glances, eight months of printouts about alternative cancer treatments, eight months of scones I didn’t want.

“Even if I’m wrong,” I said, “it takes kind of a long time to see all of Europe.”

 

IV: December 21, 2012 (according to the Mayan Calendar)

The Prado was full of pictures and the Plaza de Oriente was full of statues and the Palacio Real, I never found out about, because I’d been to half the capitals of Europe and I was tired of sights and I just sat down at a table in a plaza and asked for wine.

The day was chilly and I was the only person sitting outdoors. A waiter came out with my wine and a plate of pimientos, these little green peppers they fry in olive oil and then sprinkle with salt. I ate them and drank my wine and looked at whatever architecture I could see without turning in my seat.

Another world–ending. At home, Robin would be having a party. She and Petra and Kate and what’s–her–name and whoever else. It was good that I wasn’t there. No one wanted to hear about the real end of the world.

My knee really fucking hurt. I thought I could feel the swelling of a tumour if I pressed on the right spot, except that made it hurt more, so I didn’t do that.

Walking made it hurt more, too. It was kind of getting in the way of completing my bucket list.

When my phone rang I was halfway through my second plate of pimientos — maybe I couldn’t figure out the big stuff, but some of those little pleasures were really great, anyway.

“Petra,” I said. “Hey. Hey from Spain.”

“Happy Apocalypse,” she said. “Hope you don’t mind me calling. It’s kind of a tradition now, you and me and the end of the world.”

“I’m coming home,” I blurted.

“Yeah?” Her voice lifted happily. Behind it, there was music, something choral and ancient–sounding.

“Yeah,” I said, and I pressed my free hand to my eyes to keep them dry in the chilly Spanish wind.

 

V: January 23, 2013 (according to Chrissie “Cass” Hynd)

I didn’t tell Petra it was the day. She woke in a good mood, and I didn’t want to spoil it. She went around the apartment humming Neko Case, making me coffee and pancakes, setting out a painkiller beside my plate.

She had something due for a client and she spent the morning on the sofa with her laptop and a headset. I read the paper, every page, even the classifieds, and when I was done, I folded it up neatly and set it on the coffee table in the centre of Petra’s living room.

She’d made up the sofa for me at first, but the last couple of weeks I’d been sleeping in her bed. When I had the nightmare — most nights, now — she would wrap her arms around me without waking.

I killed most of the day like any other day. It was too late to do any more of the stuff on my bucket list. I just wanted to drink some tea, do a crossword, listen to Petra’s half of her client call, watch the clouds gather outside.

It happened in the early evening. Petra was in the kitchenette, making a stir–fry; she had a colander full of bean sprouts and a brick of tofu and a mound of green onions chopped fine. I could smell sesame oil.

I was in the living room, with my leg propped up on the sofa and a beer in my hand, just watching rain on the window–glass. Dark had fallen early on an unseasonably warm day.

I heard thunder in the distance, or something else. I rose and stood by the window and took a deep breath. The hairs on my arm pricked to life.

The power went out.

“What the fuck?” Petra said from the kitchen. I heard the clatter of a knife or something falling into the sink.

“No,” I said. “No, shit, no.” I turned to go to her. In the dark I smashed my bad knee against the coffee table. Pain like a starburst. I heard the table go over.

“Cass? Cass, are you okay?”

And there was the light, a vast electric–purple flare, and there was the sound, a roar like the whole city falling, and beneath it I heard myself cry out.

And Petra laughed, a high surprised whoop. “That was close! Cass, did you see? I think it hit right next door!” She rushed to the window. “Thunderstorms in January — fucking climate change, wow. I can’t see any fire, can you? Holy crap. I’ve never been that close to it before!”

My eyes were dazzled still, tear–filled and blinking. I saw her shape towering dim against the dark outside, against the city without power.

Then the light blinked on, and she was just Petra–sized again, and I was lying on the floor beside the overturned coffee table, amid the scattered sheets of today’s paper.

Petra turned and saw me there. She came and helped me up. She hissed through her teeth when she saw my hands uselessly clenching over the bad place on my knee, and she brought me another painkiller.

Then she figured it out. I saw her face change. I must have told her about the light, at some point, or maybe she could see it on me somehow.

“Today was your day,” she said. “You didn’t tell me.”

“There wasn’t anything I could do to change it,” I said.

“I would have held your hand more,” Petra said.

“Hold it now,” I said. “Please?”

She came and wrapped her arms around my shoulders and pressed her lips to my hair and whispered into it, “I’m so glad you were wrong.”

 

VI: January 24, 2013

I did not have the dream. I did not dream at all. I woke up with my arm gone to sleep under Petra’s weight, and weak sun angling in.

I lay until Petra’s alarm went off. It was Thursday. Petra kissed me and rolled over and padded to the shower. She had nothing on. I saw the dimples at the base of her spine, the comfortable weight at her hips, the long muscles of her thighs.

I did not have a job to go to. I did not have a place of my own. I had a backpack and a drawer of clothes in Petra’s dresser and a few cartons of books in Robin’s garage.

I had a terrible pain in my knee. I had a business card in my wallet.

In the bathroom, Petra turned on the shower and began humming to herself. Her singing voice, I had found, was surprisingly high and sweet.

I pulled on a mostly–clean t–shirt and a pair of flannel boxers, and I went to the living room.

We had left the table overturned, the papers strewn. Yesterday’s date on every one of them.

I kicked them into a messy pile with my bare foot, and then grabbed them all up and dumped them into the recycling bin.

That part was easy. The next part needed a bit more. I spent a moment just taking deep breaths.

But Petra wouldn’t be in the shower forever, and I wasn’t sure I wanted an audience for this conversation.

I picked up my phone and I looked at the business card and I dialed the number there.

“Hi, yes. My name’s Chrissie Hynd. I got a referral a while ago and I haven’t followed up, but now I’m — yes, that’s right. I’m supposed to schedule an MRI. Yes, please. For my knee. Yes — yes, that works, I’ll put it my calendar. Thanks.”

When I hung up the phone I felt this pressure behind my eyes, so intense I thought it was a vision coming, and I worked my hands together and hauled in a breath and waited for it.

Nothing came, though. Nothing from outside. Just the slow tick of the engine of logic in my brain, telling me that although the world had not ended, I could still die. And in response, the faster engine of my heart, telling me it would beat, and beat, and beat, and keep beating.


More from Claire Humphrey:

image007Claire Humphrey lives in Toronto, where she works in the book business, and writes short fiction and novels. Her stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Interzone, Crossed Genres, PodCastle, Fantasy Magazine and numerous anthologies including the upcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. She is also the reviews editor at Ideomancer.

2 Comments

  1. That… hurt to read.

    Thank you.

  2. That kicked me in the feels. keep stuff like this coming!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Interview with Claire Humphrey | Apex Magazine - […] The End of the World in Five Dates […]
  2. Episode #5 – “The End of the World in Five Dates” by Claire Humphrey | GlitterShip - […] End of the World in Five Dates” was first published in issue 58 of Apex Magazine in March […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *